A based-on-a-true-story coming-of-age tale that somehow makes watching middle schoolers play competitive chess feel exhilarating, Queen of Katwe is the epitome of a feel-good sports film. (Is chess a sport?) The titular royalty is Phiona, portrayed with gumption and heart by newcomer Madina Nalwanga. Phiona is a young woman living in the slums of Kampala, selling maize and eking out a subsistence-level existence. “How is your life, Phiona?” a local bricklayer cheerfully quips as she carries the enormous containers for her family’s daily supply of water. “Fine,” she says, not betraying any sense of anxiety over her family’s situation. Her mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) has already lost a husband and son to some previous unknown tragedy, so she approaches life with both a fighting spirit and a dose of cynicism. She is pragmatic and down-to-earth, and Phiona quietly follows suit. While Phiona’s older sister goes galavanting off with boys, Phiona is the good middle child, dutifully caring for younger siblings and trying to keep the peace.
So when Phiona stumbles upon the game of chess through a local ministry coached by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), it literally opens up an entire new world to her, as she finds a gift she never knew she had. Through Katende’s coaching and her refinement of her skills, she finds herself winning tournament after tournament, ultimately traveling to snowy Moscow to play chess masters from around the globe. All of it’s quite inspiring, watching a girl evolve into herself as a young woman and embrace her potential as a gifted chess player. Phiona’s transformation isn’t always an easy one; the external and internal challenges she faces are often overwhelming, and one is reminded just how young she truly is in these moments. Her ever-practical mother is wary about Phiona’s chess-playing, and must undergo her own formational process in seeing her daughter emerge into maturity before her.
To borrow a phrase from Kenneth Morefield at 1MoreFilmBlog, Queen of Katwe is “inconspicuously Christian.” Prayers are common, and questions about God’s role in the whole process feel natural to the story as it unfolds. Katende’s role is essentially a Christian youth worker serving in a local sports ministry for the kids in the slums. That he turns this little ministry into something far grander goes well beyond his expectations and vocational aspirations, yet this does feel like a calling for him. Trained to be an engineer, one of the more powerful scenes involves his deliberation over whether to take a prestigious and high-paying job with a large company, or remain as the part-time chess coach with his ragtag group of chess players. Even though his decision doesn’t come as a surprise to the audience, it’s still portrayed with a sense of conviction and poignancy that make it incredibly affecting. It’s a youth ministry film at heart, and youth workers will find themselves experiencing empathy through Katende’s ups and downs with his team.
While the film does feel conventional to the point of cliche as it hits the familiar beats of The Underdog Story, the performances are all solid and director Mira Nair manages to make the chess matches engaging without becoming either dull or silly. Some editing choices are abrupt and confusing at times, with conversations between characters jumping between angles as to feel a disjointed, and there’s nothing especially remarkable about the cinematography here. Still, in terms of narrative and content, the Queen of Katwe affirms that underdog stories really can happen through the stewardship of the gifts one has been given, as well as the ongoing presence of God in the midst of our own narratives. If you’re tired of the politics and the glut of bad news we seem to hear every day, Queen of Katwe is a bit of genuinely good news during a time when we need it.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4341582/